BAGHDAD, Iraq - The deal went quickly. Nasser el-Din Said handed a stack of hundred-dollar bills totaling $4,500 to another man yesterday, took the keys to a white Nissan pickup truck and put freshly prepared registration papers on the seat beside him.
Asked where the vehicle had come from, the 74-year-old simply smiled and said, "Korea and Japan." The true answer became obvious as he pulled out of the dusty lot. The blue license plate of the former Iraqi government hung from the back bumper. The truck had belonged to the Ministry of Education.
Outdoor markets full of looted and stolen vehicles such as this one near the central bus station in Nasser Square are cropping up throughout Baghdad and the city's outskirts, a byproduct of the lawlessness that replaced the fallen government of Saddam Hussein.
Most of the vehicles are from government ministries; they include Toyota Land Rovers, large pickup trucks, city buses and Mercedes sedans. Many vehicles have been stolen by armed bandits who rove the nighttime streets and who have added a new word to the Iraqi vocabulary: carjacking.
Goods plundered from days and nights of looting and thievery are sold openly in street bazaars where buyers can bargain for tomatoes or bananas as easily as for machine guns and cars - gasoline and illegally printed license plates included.
Said is a typical buyer, the illicit traders said. Many buyers are Kurds who live in areas where cars are in short supply and twice as expensive as in Baghdad. "I came because it's available and cheap," remarked Said, who lives in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.
Raid by U.S. Army
It was soon evident why Said was in a hurry to leave. Up the street and around the corner was a larger lot with more stolen cars. But this one had just been raided by soldiers of the U.S. Army. Soldiers had towed dozens of vehicles, many of them pickup trucks identical to what Said had just bought, to one of their headquarters.
There, officials with the Education Ministry waited to reclaim their vehicles.
Army Sgt. Chad Wiechelman stood sentry over the remaining eight white pickup trucks waiting to be hauled away while two tanks took up positions on either side of the lot, their drivers menacingly revving the engines every few minutes.
"I feel like a cop," the 25-year-old sergeant said, explaining that his unit was ordered to drive around Baghdad for the day searching for illegal car lots. "These stolen cars are a big problem. A bundle is from the Education Ministry. Every day, looters are coming out of that place with doors, windows and cars."
Last week, Wiechelman said, his unit discovered 25 vehicles stolen from the Red Crescent, the Arab equivalent of the Red Cross, hidden in the underground parking structure of the Sheraton Hotel, now mostly inhabited by journalists and humanitarian workers. The soldiers arrested a former brigadier general in the Iraqi police.
Chasing away the looters from the lot in central Baghdad yesterday brought another, unexpected problem. Dozens of owners of stolen cars, many of them victims of carjackings, swarmed around Wiechelman, waved crumpled copies of their registrations and demanded that he find their cars and the people who took them.
Bewildered by the sudden onslaught and unable to understand what was being shouted at him, the young sergeant diligently took the paperwork and pretended to read it, only to hand it back and shrug his shoulders.
Still, the crowd pressed forward.
Ali Sigman, who owns a hotel, said seven men with rifles jumped out of a taxi and stole his Toyota Camry last week. He had bought it two years ago for $15,000, nearly emptying his bank account, and he came to this lot yesterday willing to pay the thieves $4,000 to get his car back.
"I had heard that many of the ones that are stolen come here," he said. "But I didn't find mine."
The frustrations mounted, as did the shouting. One man tried to explain that looters steal cars only from the former government, not from citizens, but that just further enraged the crowd. More soldiers came, but that only attracted a larger crowd.
Maither Ibrahim, 45, said his brother, Imad, was killed two days ago for his Nissan sedan. Ibrahim came to the lot yesterday searching for justice. "If I find the man, I will turn him over to the Americans," he said, before rethinking his position. "Or I will kill him."
He said his brother was shot on a road leading out of Baghdad, near the walls of the Abu Ghraib prison. The barren stretch of highway, littered with the burned-out shells and turrets of Iraqi tanks, has become a criminal's paradise.
It is on this road that the largest stolen car lot exists on a wide stretch of dirt and gravel sandwiched between the highway and a collection of squat mud huts in a village whose Arabic name means "peace and tranquillity."